Country music is a hybrid musical form. It represents a blending of many older musical genres, and that certainly includes the blues. The music of Abbie Gardner makes this connection very clear. I already knew this from Gardner’s work with Red Molly, but Gardner’s new album Hope is still a revelation. For one thing, I love the sound of the National steel guitar, and Gardner plays it here far more than I have heard her do before. For another, where Red Molly performs roughly an even split of original material and covers, and that includes songs by the three different artists who make up the band, Hope is Abbie Gardner’s show, and she wrote all but three of the album’s songs. The last element that makes Hope something special is that Gardner gets to show off her jazzy side, which mostly doesn’t fit with what Red Molly does. Naturally, I am eager for the next Red Molly album, hopefully later this year, but Hope is a wonderful treat in its own right.
The country-blues connection starts with Abbie Gardner’s voice. She doesn’t growl like some blues singers, but her slightly breathy alto has a full range of expression, whether on a bluesy burner like Break It Slow, or on a tender country waltz like Hope. On jazzier numbers like Comes Love, she adds a wonderful sassiness that is perfect for the song. On the album, Gardner plays the National, the dobro, and a lap steel, with the National often featured. So she goes from a percussive guitar sound to a twangier one, and she can also add lead lines that are reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s slide work. The core band here adds Craig Akin on stand-up bass and Ben Wittman on drums. Gardner puts these rhythm players through their paces, what with the stylistic and mood changes here, but both players display amazing versatility. Akin also contributes one original song, the instrumental Do It, which sounds like it arose out of a jam session; the three musicians are having entirely too much fun here, which makes the song fun for the listener as well. Some tracks add Herb Gardner, Abbie’s father, on piano; others have Sarah Gardner, her sister, on organ. In both cases, Abbie Gardner has chosen the best available musicians for the songs. There is also a variety of background singers on the album.
As a songwriter, Abbie Gardner shows a great love of classic forms. Break It Slow is the tale of a woman who fears that her relationship with her lover may be ending. The sung kicks off the album in high gear, with its uptempo blues sound, but the lyric could just as easily be a country song. Hope is a country waltz with a wonderful cello part, and it shows Gardner’s gift for imagery. Her “glasses that shatter like broken little pieces of stars” is an image that, in the context of the song, I can see in my head as she sings the line. In all, these are stories of love sought, found, and lost, told with great eloquence. Gardner’s performances invest her words with great emotion, and thus she demonstrates her love of classic song forms. And then, late in the album, she breaks the rules a bit. Bang Bang has an ambiguity that one doesn’t usually find in country. Here, a woman who has found her lover with another woman lets the us know that she has a gun, and she intends to use it. But she might shoot her lover, his lover, or herself. She only knows that “something wants to go bang today”. Her feelings and the sense of danger are both very real in this song, but Gardner wants to present the situation, not its resolution. Nellie is a great piece of storytelling, and it describes a harrowing situation. The narrator, whose relationship with the title character is unclear, offers to help Nellie escape from an abusive relationship. Gardner tells the tale, not graphically, but with a bluntness that is unusual and brave. Finally, the album concludes with Too Soon (For Karena). This one is a beautiful hymn for a lost loved one. Coming at the end of the album as it does, Too Soon offers comfort not only in the context of the song itself, but also for all the stirred emotions that have come before.
In all, Hope is an album I know I will be going back to. The playing is sometimes flashy, but always in service to the song. The writing is rich and varied. And Abbie Gardner has a great voice for blues, country, or jazz.
Abbie Gardner: Break It Slow
Abbie Gardner: Hope
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